MANY Scottish firms’ already great fears about their continued ability to employ the overseas workers they need will have intensified significantly within the last fortnight, as the Conservatives have signalled an alarmingly strong appetite for “hard Brexit”.
Companies operating in a huge variety of sectors, from shortbread through engineering to information technology, are very dependent on workers from other European Union countries, and from further afield, for their success.
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There has naturally been a lot of concern about whether people from other EU states who live here will be able to remain following Brexit. These worries are obviously most immediate for the people themselves, although this concern will be shared by their employers.
The answer to this issue seems simple enough, from the perspective of both society and the economy. People from other EU member states in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK must be allowed to stay, and future freedom of movement is also vital.
It is not only the private sector that is hugely reliant on the skills and efforts of people from across the EU and from other countries.
Just look at the huge number of talented doctors and nurses from overseas, including tens of thousands from other EU countries, who are working in the National Health Service.
In the context of Brexit, it is therefore impossible to overstate the importance of people from other EU countries being allowed to continue to live and work in the UK. While this has understandably been the focus, we overlook at our peril another key danger amid the post-Brexit vote shambles. There is a huge risk that - given protracted uncertainty and an extremely worrying degree of post-Brexit jingoism - people from other EU countries might not want to stay in the UK anyway.
And who could blame them? In some parts of the UK, xenophobia appears to have been a big driver of the Brexit vote.
Since the June 23 referendum on EU membership, the mood music on immigration has at times been nothing short of alarming.
So there is surely a big risk indeed that people who have moved to the UK from other EU countries will decide to go elsewhere.
That is even before we get to the very lengthy period of uncertainty they face before finding out what Brexit means for them.
The Conservatives still, it seems, have to work out just what it might be they actually want to achieve from Brexit. They will then have to form a realistic, rather than fantastical, view of what kind of exit “deal” with the EU they might actually be able to negotiate. And then they will have to negotiate with our long-suffering EU partners.
One very worrying aspect in all of this, particularly given Prime Minister Theresa May’s continuing insistence that Parliament will not be allowed to vote on the triggering of Article 50 to begin the two-year EU exit process, is that curbing immigration seems to be a top priority for the Conservatives.
Signs that this is the case have hammered the pound, given perfectly reasonable fears the Conservatives will pursue this objective at the expense of free access to the European single market. And, it almost goes without saying, to the detriment of the UK economy.
Jeremy Peat, visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde’s International Public Policy Institute, summed things up well this week. He warned the UK economic outlook appeared “bleak”, with politicians “making it ever clearer that they are prepared to forego access to the single market in favour of a severe reduction in immigration”.
Last week, shortbread company chief Jim Walker expressed fears that the Brexit vote could prompt some of the overseas workers who are crucial to his family’s company to leave the UK.
“Nobody has left but we’re concerned that there may be a negative attitude towards them and they might be tempted to leave,” said Mr Walker, who also noted the residential status of EU nationals might come into question.
Mrs May and her Government should take heed of the concern expressed by Walkers Shortbread, given the huge number of companies across the UK that will be similarly affected and will share Mr Walker’s view.
In a survey published this week by the Food and Drink Federation, 71 per cent of UK firms in this sector with staff from other EU countries reported these employees had expressed concerns over the Brexit result. And 8.7 per cent of food and drink companies with EU staff said these employees had already stated their intention to leave the UK. Mrs May should heed these percentages.
Bryan Buchan, chief executive of industry body Scottish Engineering, has highlighted his sector’s need for skilled workers from other EU member countries.
Meanwhile, a recent survey from trade body ScotlandIS showed three-quarters of Scottish information technology companies fear Brexit will have a detrimental impact on their access to skilled staff.
Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, said: “The vast majority of our member companies will have [non-UK] Europeans in their workforce working in Scotland already. There is a challenge in making those people feel secure, to stay on. We need more of these people to come and work in the Scottish sector as well.”
She is absolutely right.
Nevertheless, it seems some Conservatives do not want to listen as they thump their tubs and shout for “hard Brexit”.
The loud noises from the UK Government about curbing immigration are making an already sorry situation a lot worse. Unfortunately, in spite of employers’ best efforts, Scotland and other parts of the UK look highly likely to lose a lot of crucial talent.